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Artist interview: Paul Etienne Lincoln

The Englishman in New York on his latest inventions and why he would have made a rubbish YBA

The Art Newspaper: So how would you describe your current show “Equestrian opulators” at Alexander & Bonin?

PEL: Originally I took these shootingsticks, which are in common use on racetracks around the world. I decided to re-engineer it, elaborate it, make it more of an instrument. Then I added an “Orange circumnavigator” for peeling oranges that would inter-fit with the one shooting stick. I decided to make a small edition of this. I wrote a little manual on 30 racetracks around the world, starting at O longitude, and by flipping a coin you can head east or west. I describe track layouts with maps and descriptions of the races, which ones to see in which season. Then I decided I’d like to write one on the different oranges you could get at different seasons and different race tracks. And then I went to England in the summer and that’s when it all came together. Greville Worthington gave me “The House of Approximate Odds”, a very beautiful building right in the middle of Catterick Racetrack and he organised a special race on the Saturday race meeting called the Equestrian Opulator Filly Handicap Stakes and I built some trophies for the winning trainers. I had all of the shooting sticks and their accessories and a map of the world painted on a white wall. It was like a command centre from where you looked out on all sides of the track. There were also my drink machines, a GINSMAID that decanted gin & tonic and my “Epernay Epicurean” for champagne.

TAN: And what are the actual uses of the “Opulator”

PEL: It’s got a bearing so you can just follow horses at a glance; it spins with you. But you can peel oranges between races. There’s also a whole set of seat covers, one that has vibrators in it; it’s infra-red and set off by the starting signal of each race, they vibrate and get stronger and stronger and get shut off at the finishing line.

TAN: For fillies?

PEL: Well, it’s only reserved for the French market; it’s not for the Anglo-Saxon market. There are also heated alpaca seat covers and industrial mink. But you can also unscrew the tip of the shooting stick and use it to set off flares, for distracting horses or signalling to the staff to bring you some beverages. You can also use the tip to smoke large diameter cigars. Or you can slip in this optical lens where you can admire a horse’s teeth at close range to discern its age. This is called an “Ocular speculator”.

TAN: Do you build a prototype and get others to manufacture an edition?

PEL: No, I manufacture everything myself. I have a little workshop in Brooklyn where they’re lathed and machined. Everything is made by hand, but they look engineered and mass-produced. They’re actually incredibly time consuming. Even the details of the vitrines are very specific, I use very few found objects; they’re all pretty much tailor made. The assembly is probably the quickest element. The time is in the interweaving of the layers of information. On the face of it, these machines look quite simple unless you’re curious and start reading, for example my book A violet somnambulist spiriting the fugacious bloom. It describes all the hidden literal and metaphorical workings of Ignisfatuus, which you can’t access just by looking at it.

TAN: Are you more interested in the ideas behind these machines or the technical construction?

PEL: Both. I’m very interested in how things go together and also the specifics of materials. Some materials have very deep connotations, some particular metal has a property, a symbolic property, all of these elements draws me towards them. The overall ideas are sometimes derived from literature or history and I’m almost mediating them through other materials.

TAN: Your work has a strong literary feel.

PEL: Well, they have narratives. Some have been based on historical events. Like my 1978 work St George and the Dragon, based on the Ucello painting, using live Elephant Hawk Moths. They’re attracted to this blue mercury vapour, which is the “dragon” and “St George” is actually a structure made of bridal tulle and filled with acetone.

TAN: How do you feel about being labelled as a mad boffin, the eccentric English inventor?

PEL: I don’t think it really applies. Of course, you could look round my studio here and see the big big Electro-encepholograph machine, which I just had brought over from Bologna, but I’m using it for very specific reasons, for my work on memory and how one fixes sculptural objects in the memory.

TAN: Do you want your devices to be aesthetically attractive?

PEL: I think they should be alluring, through the elegance of their construction. But often people have a hang-up with machines—machines have to work, have to perform and have no aesthetic role. Everyone goes on about the “nostalgia” of these machines, but, to me, they’re all about the 20th century. This huge project I’ve been working on since I’ve been in New York, since 1986, “NY Hot, NY Cold” is really a portrait of all the city’s technological changes throughout this century, all in brassy aluminium. It’s an incredibly complex thing to attempt to do, this project has so many different parts, all made out of these two metals.

TAN: Is this notoriously ambitious project ever going to see the light of day?

PEL: Absolutely. The larger works evolve very slowly. It’s an important part of how I work. Sometimes part of a machine will lay dormant for years, then by working on something completely different I’ll find a solution to an aspect of an old idea, resolving one step at a time. It’s a kind of chain reaction.

TAN: So all the sales go into this one big project?

PEL: I don’t really sell enough; I also have to work. I repair accordions professionally. I work for Main Squeeze: For All Your Accordion Needs!. There are lots of people playing accordions in New York—Russians, Mexicans, Argentinians. I just go one day a week and repair as many as I can. If there’s some accordion-emergency I’m always on call. I play the accordion myself, tangos mainly. I quite like the sad music.

TAN: And you make furniture?

PEL: I’m currently building a chest for 15 pairs of shoes for a very refined lady in the South of France, with little velvet-lined cages. It has perforated zinc for air to circulate. I designed it on commission for her boudoir. I’m also doing a little writing table for her. I made a lot of furniture and had a show in Vienna. But it’s so time consuming and I’d rather be thinking about more esoteric things.

TAN: You’re also known for your dancing devices, “The world & its inhabitants”, that only perform once, at private dinners.

PEL: I can show you a new character, Rigby & Peller, The Queen’s bra makers, under this bell jar. I cannot divulge how Rigby & Peller will operate. It should really be viewed through this piece of gossamer silk, which you just lift up. I took my wife there to be measured up. They wouldn’t touch her. They just took her into this three-mirrored room and looked round her, asked a few questions then picked this one bra out, asked her to try it on and it fitted perfectly. I thought that was so beautiful, that they intuitively knew, wouldn’t touch her. The assistant took about four full minutes to eye her up.

TAN: Why do you live in New York?

PEL: I came here on holiday. Back in England I had really serious asthma. When I came to New York, I didn’t have any asthma at all for five years. And I can make things so much more cheaply here, for half the price.

TAN: Most of your major supporters seem to have some connection to literature or books, whether Greville Worthington or Bernhard Starkmann.

PEL: These are very rare people. I’m lucky to have found people like that. Bernhard does so much research and writes me letter after letter.

TAN: And Greville as well... Did you see the African tribal tattoo on his back?

PEL: Yes, Greville’s a great man. I mean, I love the fact he’s got the biggest collection of bamboos in England and he’s also a Knight of Malta, yet he’s interested in art. Because, in my experience, for a lot of English people, “art” is a completely dirty word, which makes this whole recent English scene an extraordinary phenomenon. When I was at art college the majority of the populus was completely uninterested in art unless it resembled a horse.

TAN: Should you have stayed in London to become a Young British Artist?

PEL: No, because I wouldn’t fit in with that yobby attitude—drinking in The Blind Beggar, or wherever they go, and vomiting down each other’s underpants.

TAN: By contrast your work seems to be derived from someone like Raymond Roussel.

PEL: Roussel, absolutely, obviously, though I don’t fully understand his method of writing using onomatopoeic structures. I find his works terribly rich to read, especially Locus solus; that idea of the inventor taking you round his garden, it’s always in the back of my head.

TAN: Is that how you’d wish people to react to your own work, not necessarily fully understanding, but finding it rich and stimulating?

PEL: Well, I think the works are accessible on different levels. People can just admire the forms or they can investigate further. I think a lot of art is like this—it’s like looking at hieroglyphics in a museum. We can all admire their beauty but if you know enough about Egyptology to decipher their meaning it’s a much richer experience.

Born London, England

1976-78 Croydon College of Art, Croydon; 1978-81 Maidstone College of Art, Maidstone; 1983-84 Royal College of Art, London

Selected exhibitions

1981 Young Contemporaries, Institute of Contemporary Art, London 1985 “Art and alchemy, Venice Biennale 1989 “The coracle”, Yale Centre for Britich Art, New Haven 1993 Prospect 93, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt 1998 “Going for baroque: the Contemporary”, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore 1999 Sculpture Biennial, Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Münster 2000: “Gangurinn 20 ¡ra -The Corridor 20 years”, Reykjavik Art Museum; “Through the looking glass”, Galerie M. + R. Fricke, Berlin; P.S.1, New York 2001 “Equestrian opulators”, Alexander and Bonin, New York, until 20 January

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 110 January 2001